As the Milwaukee Brewers routed the Houston Astros, I sat high in the terrace reserved seats watching a young third baseman with a penchant for making fielding errors. He also had a penchant for smacking baseballs over the wall. His name was Ryan Braun, and as I watched this Rookie of the Year crush another long ball, I proudly proclaimed that he was going to be a Hall-of-Famer. And I was right. Until he cheated.
There is much debate about PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs) in baseball, but one thing is sure: Users are tainted for life and are pariahs when it comes to HOF voting. Ask McGuire, Sosa, Clemens, etc. Braun is now in that group. Even if he stays clean for the rest of his career, makes All-Star teams, wins MVPs, and puts up Hall of Fame stats, he is likely to be left out of Cooperstown.
I loved Braun, his cool demeanor and awesome performances. Sure he was a little cocky, but “it ain’t bragging if you can back it up” right? When he signed several contract extensions that guaranteed he would be a Brewer for most of his life, I was thrilled. The future of Milwaukee baseball looked bright. So I was crushed when allegations surfaced that he had failed a drug test, then was buoyed when his suspension was overturned. Justice had triumphed, and sure he’d gotten off on a technicality, but that’s why they have technicalities. When the allegations resurfaced and we all found that Braun had indeed cheated, it was hardly a surprise in this day and age. But it was sad. (It should be pointed out that I believed in Lance Armstrong until the very last, so maybe I just need to do a better job of picking “heroes”.)
Now Braun is back making plays for the Brewers. And I am torn on how to feel when he makes a diving catch, comes through with a clutch base hit, or is booed by fans in other cities. He cheated. But so do lots of guys. Technically, any foul—be it grasping a facemask in football or hooking a skater in hockey or scuffing a baseball—is cheating, and cheating has consequences (15 yards, 2 minutes, ejection and suspension). And yet, what Braun did is somehow different. He didn’t just cheat. He adamantly lied about it, burning bridges with friends and fans. Then he took it another step, blaming the sample collector, a regular, hard-working guy, throwing him under the proverbial bus. He went beyond cheating to being a chump. And while I don’t expect all my sports heroes to be perfect, when a guy is just a jerk, it makes it hard for me to cheer for him.
So what do I do? Forget Braun’s indiscretions and look the other way? “He’s a cheater, but he’s our cheater.” Or do I boo him at ballgames, hope he fails, taking my local baseball team down the drain with him?
Or can I split the difference? Can I cheer for the player without cheering for the person? Can I dislike Ryan Braun the person but love #8 in blue and gold? Is considering Ryan Braun a means to an end (a second pennant flying high over Miller Park) disingenuous? (By the way, “disingenuous” is what we call baseball players who flat out lie about using PEDs.) I don’t know how to feel any longer. I’m torn. And maybe that’s exactly how a cheating All-star should leave me. Maybe that’s why the “steroid era” in baseball is so sad, because it tears apart America’s pastime.